The first time Lea Ann Parsley told her brother Bob about the little-known sport that had caught her fancy, he knew she had found her calling. "When she described it as sliding down a hill head-first at 80 mph on a cookie sheet, I didn't need to hear any more," he says of their chat three years ago. "I just knew it was going to be something she enjoyed."
Indeed, Parsley, 33, hopes to represent the U.S. in the solo sledding event called skeleton at February's Olympic Games. But long before discovering skeleton—making its debut as a women's event—she was a daredevil. A firefighter since 16, when she joined her two older brothers on a volunteer squad in their hometown of Granville, Ohio, she has battled blazes from Oregon to Florida. In 1999 she was named Ohio's Firefighter of the Year for saving a wheelchair-bound teen and her mother from their burning mobile home. In her 20s she competed nationally in team handball, a sport she says entails "diving through the air and beating each other up." So skeleton, last a part of the Olympics as a men's event in 1948, seems a natural. "It's 60 seconds of pure speed," says Parsley, currently the sport's top-ranked woman in the U.S., "and the thrill of making split-second decisions."
Even among her firefighting colleagues, Parsley has always been known for her gung-ho approach. "She is always the dirtiest one to come out of a fire," says Dudley Wright, 32, chief of the volunteer department in Granville, where Parsley still lives. "She gets right into the thick of it."
That attitude paid off on the morning of Feb. 19, 1999, when the Granville department was called to a mobile home engulfed in flames. "I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to save anybody," recalls Parsley, who saw a neighbor pointing to a window of the home, which another firefighter had already entered. Parsley quickly followed. She pulled out a 14-year-old girl, who told rescuers that her mother was still inside. Parsley found the woman and, hugging her from behind, flopped backwards out a window to safety. "You need people who are willing to go in there and do it," says Nathan Kirk, 49, who heads the Ohio Interagency Wildfire Crew, on which Parsley has served. "She won't back off anything."
That's been the case since the third of four children of Bob, 63, a bank accountant, and Ruth Ann, 60, director of a child-care center, was growing up in Granville. The only girl—and the quarterback—on her peewee football team, Parsley added basketball and track to her sports repertory in high school. "She's just got a competitive streak," observes Ruth Ann, who says the closest thing to winter sports Granville offered was "sledding at the golf course."
After earning her master's in nursing in 1994, Parsley began administering immunization programs for an Ohio-based hospital network but continued as a volunteer firefighter. In 1994 she took a part-time paid position with a fire department based in New Albany, another Columbus suburb. "I love it enough," she says of firefighting, "I might as well get paid."
Parsley discovered skeleton while visiting the Olympic training facility at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1998 hoping for a place on a bobsled team. Instead she found herself riding the thin skeleton sled down a steep, ice-covered track at speeds as high as 80 mph, wearing a helmet and a body-length swimsuit and track spikes. She quickly discovered it tapped the same combination of daring and planning that had paid off fighting fires.
But rushing from one competition to the next as a member of the U.S. National Team has left Parsley—who finds out on Jan. 6 whether she's made the Olympic squad—little time for a personal life. Besides, her 65-lb. sled and all the gear that goes with it aren't exactly a single girl's best friend. "You are pretty much living in the same T-shirt and jeans," says Parsley, "so that makes it hard to pick up a date." Traveling with a sled has posed other challenges as well. With heightened security since Sept. 11, she has had to explain her sport so many times at airports that she has taken to carrying a photo of herself racing. "That speaks volumes," Parsley says. "It also helps if you're carrying home a trophy."
Eric Francis in Lake Placid
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